When advertising brand director Ngeow Pui Lin quit her high-flying city job to set up a Montessori kindergarten on remote Gili Island, Indonesia, quite a few eyebrows were raised.
“Education seemed like a whole new ball game for me, as I have lived and breathed advertising my entire career. Many friends were concerned about my plans to uproot and live on Gili Island, which is an hour and a half away from Bali,” Ngeow recounts. But the ambitious woman was not perturbed. With the availability of direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Lombok – an island between Bali and Gili – Ngeow knew she could travel home whenever she felt homesick.
“Previously, travellers had to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta and hop on another connecting flight to Lombok. Prior to AirAsia flights to Lombok, it took close to 12 hours to travel from Kuala Lumpur to the Gili islands,” she says.
Gili Island comprises three islands – Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno.
It is a popular spot for diving with the reputation of being the turtle capital of the world. It is a backpackers’ paradise, with a laid-back feel and countless restaurants and beach-side cafes.
Ngeow’s interest in teaching began in 2006, after volunteering at an orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal.
“It was an eye-opening and humbling experience. It really touched my heart to see children so positive and happy despite living in poverty. I enjoyed teaching English to the children,” she recalls.
Ngeow also learnt to be thankful of her blessings and decided it was important to give back.
“It gave me joy to help bring about positive change. I was inspired to continue doing more fulfilling work, specifically in education. It made me realise that if you are too engrossed in climbing the corporate ladder, sometimes you lose sight of other things that really matter to you.”
Fuelled with passion to teach children, she signed up for a part-time Montessori course at a private college in Petaling Jaya.
“I chose the Montessori philosophy in education for young children. It focuses on teaching children to be more aware about the environment, and cultivate interest and love for the world,” said Ngeow, who enrolled in the early education course in 2009.
That same year, she visited a close friend, Isrina Asmi, who was living on Gili island.
During her stay, she discovered that there was only one government-run kindergarten, catering to 100 children, on Gili Trawangan.
The kindergarten was more focused on academics, unlike the Montessori model which is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play.
“Isrina was looking for a tutor to teach her young daughter. As I was undergoing my Montessori training, she asked if I was willing to set up a school on the island,” says Ngeow who earned her Montessori diploma in 2011.
Isrina’s request played on her mind and she was eventually sold on the idea.
In 2013, she finally made the career switch from advertising to early child education.
“My parents were worried at the start. They were concerned about my financial security. Thankfully, they have been supportive throughout. I also learnt that leaving the corporate world was not as difficult as I had imagined,” says the 35-year-old Ngeow.
In 2013, Ngeow, together with co-partners Isrina and Gili Eco Trust’s Delphine Robbe signed a deal to set up Gili Bumblebee Montessori on Gili Trawangan.
The trio bought a plot of land on the island and invested extra cash to buy bought furniture, stationery and educational material for the kindergarten.
“Thankfully with the regular flights from Kuala Lumpur, it was so much easier to bring in education material to the island.
“Friends and family members travelling to Lombok were also roped in to bring us the goods,” says Ngeow, who makes four to six Lombok trips a year.
Gili Bumblebee Montessori was set up in six months. Twelve students enrolled in their kindergarten, comprising expatriate children.
Classes, held in English, are hands-on and rely more on social interaction and focused on the environment .
Older children learn about environment issues, trash management and how to plant and cook their own food.
The most important thing about the school, Ngeow says, is that students love coming to school.
“To cultivate a love for learning, students spend a lot of time outdoors. They also have a three-hour work-cycle with independent work choice, and lots of projects. Our classes are mixed-age groupings, and it’s beautiful to see the interaction between the older and the younger children,” says Ngeow.
In the span of five years, the school has grown in staff and student strength. There are now five teachers and 25 students, between three and nine years old.
The kindergarten now offers free classes for local children living on the island. Classes – held every Saturday – are taught in Bahasa Indonesia. Students are taught environmental awareness and knowledge about the world, all through hands-on activities, to inspire students to want to learn more.
“We have received positive response from local students. It’s nice to see them coming forward and participating in our activities,” says Ngeow, who has started to organise more tie-ups with local primary schools on Gili Trawangan.
Ngeow has moved back to Kuala Lumpur but she travels regularly to Gili Island to check on the school’s progress. In between, she takes on freelance marketing jobs and has also enrolled in a part-time course in special needs education.
“While I enjoyed the freelance projects, I felt that it’s time to focus back on education. There’s a sense of fulfilment when I do something beneficial for children,” says Ngeow, who is also involved in setting up an education wing of a consultancy company in Kuala Lumpur.
She encourages others to live life to the fullest and to never give up their dreams.
“If you find a career that you truly enjoy, regardless of the circumstances, it will eventually work out. Essentially, life is about making changes to fulfil your dreams.”
AirAsia is the only airline that flies direct from Kuala Lumpur to Lombok three times a week. For more details, go to airasia.com.
AirAsia and Mah Sing are the main partners of The Star’s WOW-Women do Wonders campaign, with SASA as co-sponsor.